Graded on a Curve: Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia

It’s no mystery that the banjo originated in Africa, but the specifics of the instruments beginnings are less well known, at least until now, as on February 3 Smithsonian Folkways releases Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia. Across 25 tracks, the sounds on this CD are as enjoyable as they are enlightening.

Ears of the People spotlights participants from West Africa vocalizing and playing the ekonting (or akonting), a three-stringed gourd instrument popular with the Jola people in Senegambia. Thanks to the research of Gambian ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta, the ekonting is now acknowledged as the most probable antecedent of the banjo.

It’s often the case with the passage of time, the opportunity to establish historical connections diminishes until the chances ultimately vanish, but occasionally, diligence and intelligence prevail over the ceaseless ticking of the clock. That’s exactly what happened with Ears of the People, as it was once supposed that the halam (or xalam), a 1 to 5-stringed instrument common in the Senegambia region, was the “grandfather of the American banjo,” and idea propagated by Wolof Music of Senegal and the Gambia, a Folkways LP from 1955, and a notion shared by Pete Seeger.

It’s necessary to emphasize that Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta’s research isn’t definitive, though the music on Ears of the People does make a compelling argument in favor of the ekonting as the banjo’s precursor. But with that said, even as the players on this nearly 80-minute disc employ a strumming technique that’s essentially the same as the enduringly popular “clawhammer” method utilized by many U.S. banjoists, the sounds here are distinctive from the banjo as the selections are varied across the set.

And the work from the individual players often presents an appealing diversity, as the first two of Musa Diatta’s three tracks (spread across the set) present an inviting calm of just voice and ekonting, while the third adds the rhythm of what sounds like a foot tap/stomp. By comparison, the 71-year-old Abdoulaye Diallo’s three pieces for voice and ekonting are noticeably more intense, if no less engaging.

But it’s Sijam Bukan (Ears of the People), a band led by Jules Diatta, that broadens this disc’s stylistic range. Along with the ekonting, there are call and response vocals and layered rhythms, with these aspects also figuring in the four pieces by Adama Sambou and Ejam Kasa, though the incessant metallic clang stands out amongst the work of their contemporaries.

Jean “Kangaben” Djibalen’s two pieces scale back to just voice and ekonting, though in “Madu,” the crows of a rooster are an extra treat for the ear. Additionally, the group singing in Esukolaal’s “Bapaalaay” is absolutely sublime. While the voices of women are numerous on Ears of the People, women playing the ekonting are far less frequent, with Elisa Diedhiou the exception, her playing fleet and sturdy on two tracks.

Bouba Diedhiou adds two pieces to the set, as does Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta himself (who in addition to his ethnomusicological work wrote the album’s forward); he gives a brief spoken intro to his “Kunaare Kati Gambi,” deepening a vibe that’s scholarly but also folky. Don’t misread that as folksy, as the truly unifying element on Ears of the People is vitality. This isn’t staid and safe music; instead, it’s often played in accompaniment of West African wrestlers. The first album of ekonting music from Senegambia is as robust as anything on the contemporary scene.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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